Every Christmas eve we settle in to hear the Christmas story told once more. We long to hear of angels leaning near the earth; of a small, unimportant town visited by a obscure family who find refuge in a humble stable.
Tonight is no different. I have a story to tell you that I'll call: "The night that God crawled." It is gospel truth.
Before I go on, I want to say when I use the word 'gospel' I am using it more broadly than confining the word of God to the books we find within the Bible, but I am intentionally using that word. I do this because 'gospel' actually means 'to announce and bring good news' and good news is still proclaimed today; angels still take wing today, and God still acts today. And that truth is one that we need to hear.
Anyway, in tonight's 'gospel' story there's a man I'm going to refer to as Juan. He is an amalgamation of a few people I know or have met or have read about.
So, the Christmas Gospel retold:
It was a dark, wet February night, the kind that chills you to the bone and the air clings heavy around your shoulders. On nights such as these, most of us would cuddle up in a fleece blanket with a bowl of popcorn and warm ourselves in front of the fireplace.
That wasn't what Juan was doing.
No. Juan was waiting. His life reflecting some perpetual Advent: sitting around with his feet up on the coffee table, a Red Bull in hand, and his baseball cap drawn down low across his eyes. The TV buzzed in the background, but he paid little attention to it. Every once in awhile someone in the room would cheer if their basketball team scored and the room would momentarily come alive, but by and large everyone was doing the same thing.
To look at Juan, as he dozed in and out of sleep, you'd wonder if this guy had a clue, had any real gumption. You'd probably write him off. At 25 he's too young to have any idea about 'real life.'
And then, quite suddenly, it's time.
Because now, cutting through the hush of the night, are the ear splitting alarms signaling that someone needs saving.
It's a 5 alarm box fire.
And it's a bad one.
Juan and his buddies move quickly - racing to the engine bay. Every second is crucial; there is no time to waste. Juan barks orders as the truck pulls out with lights flashing and sirens wailing.
It's clear that he does indeed know what he's doing.
The world rushes quickly by as they barrel down the road and the wind tears through the windows. The Emergency Command Center has dispatched them to a duplex in Wheaton, a town densely populated by immigrant families. Juan isn't headed to an inn at Bethlehem, but he very well could be, becausethe world is about to change.
His whole world. And a little family's whole world.
At the onset of the night nobody could've predicted that tonight would be a night of miracles. 30 minutes ago all seemed so calm and peaceful, and now chaos and pandemonium reign.
Firefighters pour out of trucks as they secure their face pieces; hoses are strewn back and forth like heavy spaghetti noodles across the lawn; ladders are thrown against the sides of the house as firefighters prepare to head in by way of windows.
Nothing about this night is still, or serene, or quiet now. It is not a very Holy Night.
And then, in the midst of the ruckus, the world does indeed stand still for one split second, as the desperate cries of a father land on Juan's ears....
"My baby...she trapped inside. She's in the basement."
And in the next split second the man is gone as he runs back inside to save his daughter, who is only 4 months old.
Juan's job is clear. The house is important, and squelching the fire is imperative, but the child is the mission now. In. It's time to save the baby, because the baby - the baby is the more important than anything else.
Another firefighter finds the father passed out in the house and drags him to safety as Juan begins his search. The father, as much as he loves his daughter, he couldn't save her because the smoke and the heat overcame him.
In a fire smoke doesn't 'fill the room' so much as it banks down like a heavy fog, trying to suffocate you from above, as the fire rolls across the ceiling...
A firefighter can feel the heat before he ever sees the fire and knows that on the ground, below the smoke, it's cooler and clearer. Not clear and bright, but low to the ground, Juan is able to function. He's able to crawl.
Down here on the ground is the only hope of saving the child.
"I'm coming. I'm coming," Juan whispers under his breath as he crawls on his hands and knees. His head is silently screaming as his heart beats faster than it ever has before.
"Damn, where is that kid?"
There! In the crib. There she is; not making a sound.
Juan quickly grabs her and hands her out a window to waiting arms and prays the only prayer he can, "Please, let her be ok." He's done all he can. That fire marked him as her savior forever; marking him with pain and burned flesh and thankfulness. It marked her too, but she's too young and innocent to even know what's been done for her.
The little angel girl couldn't save herself and had no idea that danger lurked all around her. I mean, we hardly ever do...
But the Savior knew. He knew where to go; knew that the only way to save the children of the world was straight down to the ground, on His hands and knees, right into the middle of the nightmare...
The Savior knows that the place to be born is in the middle of a house that is about to burn to the ground.
The Savior knows that the place to be born is in the dark corners of the world where the lonely, lost, and forgotten hide.
The Savior knows that the place to be born is in a manger filled with scraps and bits of dreams lost.
As I thought about this... it seems like the last place the Savior would be born is in a church. It's too pristine and unspoiled. The church is not going up in flames, our heating is adjusted appropriately and we sit in the warmth and security of our family and friends. There is nothing here from which we need saving.
But we are like the little angel girl who was asleep in her crib.
Asleep in a place where she should've been safe.
Like a church.... We are often unaware that we even need saving.
Life needs to be on fire and burning to the ground before we take notice of the smoke and heat that has been slowly suffocating and choking us.
When you're a pastor and it's the week before Christmas, even your most secular friends will ask you what your sermon is going to be about on Christmas Eve.
My answer? Jesus as a fireman.
Now if this person happened to be a firefighter, you can imagine the sly grin that might creep across that firefighter's face, often accompanied by an, "Oh yeah, baby."
Firefighters have big heads and they'd certainly love to be likened to God.
However as shocking as Jesus portrayed as a fireman might be...
God as a baby, on His knees, at the mercy of the world is even more shocking, even more perilous, and is even greater love than a man barreling into a fire to save a baby.
The God the world expected went up in flames on that first Christmas day when Jesus came to us in a manger and God crawled to us as a baby.
The Good News is that the Savior knows that heat means fire before we ever do
And there you have the Christmas story.
Oh, except for the line that matters most in the story...
"Tonight, I'm coming for you," says God.